OUTSIDE: Redbud is a spring calling card

By Steve Roark

One of the more popular trees in the spring is the eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis), which blesses us with a beautiful bloom of purple pea-like flowers that pop out on the trunk and large branches as well as on twigs. Another common name for redbud is Judas tree, which comes from the belief that Judas hung himself from a middle-eastern redbud after betraying Christ.

In the wild you most often see redbuds along forest edges and fencerows, but you are just as likely to see it as a yard tree.  It is a small tree that reaches around 25 feet in height and 25-30 feet of crown spread.  The trunk branches off not far from the ground into spreading branches covered with dark bark.   When it’s not blooming, you can identify redbud by the broad heart shaped leaves that have a smooth edge.  In the winter look for zigzagging twigs that have light colored dots on them.  In late summer and fall it will have brown seed pods similar to peas, as redbud is in the pea family.

The showy purple blooms occur in clusters around in April before leaf-out and are usually pollinated by long tongued bees such as the carpenter bee, which are able to get out in cooler weather because of their body fuzz. I have seen honeybees work the flowers as well.  Redbud bloom time often corresponds with a cold snap, and you have no doubt heard of “redbud winter”.

Other than for ornamental use, redbud is too small a tree to be used for much.  Pioneers used to use green redbud twigs to season wild game. The bark has been used as an astringent in the treatment of dysentery. Native Americans used to eat the flowers raw or boiled, and it has been put into salads or eaten fried (anything tastes good southern fried).  If you want to try this be sure to only eat a little at first in case of food allergies. There is some wildlife use of redbud fruit. Cardinals have been observed feeding on the seeds, which have also been consumed by ring-necked pheasants, grosbeaks, and bobwhites.  White-tailed deer and gray squirrels have also been observed feeding on the seeds.

Redbud makes a good yard tree and is small enough to fit in many landscapes.  Just be sure you have room for it when it reaches its mature size.  It can grow in many soil types but needs reasonable soil moisture. Redbud prefers full to partial sun but can grow in shade.  It will have a vase like spread when young, but will eventually form a flat, broad canopy.  Its best assets are the striking floral display, a fairly rapid growth when young, and develops a somewhat ornate bark as it ages.  Liabilities include a short lifespan, usually only 15-20 years in an urban landscape. It often leans with age and is also somewhat prone to storm damage with age. Fall color is so-so.

Steve Roark is a volunteer interpreter for the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.